How long? How short? How low? How high? Tight? Loose? Opaque? Transparent? Fingertip length? Below the knee? Hosiery? No hosiery? These are all questions which have been attached to the term “modesty” in decades past. Why?
I think in some cases it is easier to manage how our preferences look in a controlled environment. Many times these stringent standards are set forth out of fear…out of concern for appearances and what others may think. Should that be the driving force of our choices regarding modesty? Is it about appearances at all? Of necessity, sometimes guidelines are necessary; but sometimes we can become rabid in the enforcement of them, getting the cart before the horse.
When children are tiny, we give them directives because they are often not yet mature enough to plug principles into reality. Keep your dress pulled down. Wear a slip. Be careful how you bend over. But even our littles can understand basic principles of modesty if we take the time to address them.
This is what I’ve boiled it down to:
“Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves” Philippians 2:3
Oversimplified? I don’t think so. Let’s break down how this could apply to modesty:
- Strife: Does what you are wearing, or your comportment, cause unrest in others? For instance, although I have no problem with wearing modest jeans or slacks, we have a friend who is offended by this (he’s never said so, but it is obvious by his downcast eyes and demeanor). If we were to be invited to his place, I would choose to wear a skirt or dress. We had some Mennonite friends…same thing there.
- Vainglory: You do realize that a modest dress can be worn immodestly, yes? If it is worn in a flaunting manner, or a desire to impress or one-up someone, leave it in the closet. If you’re proud that you are wearing such-and-such a designer, then you’re proud. What is worn should not call attention to oneself from across a crowded room. I have told our oldest daughter that whenever she does special music she should consider if there is anything about her chosen outfit which would detract from the message she wants to share? When I taught at a university, I had a girl come up to me at the end of the semester and comment how much she admired my manicures and how I wore my outfits. I tried to thank her kindly, but inside I felt a terrible hollow feeling…if that was what she took away from my class, I’d failed miserably.
- Lowliness of mind: This passage is about having the mind of Christ. Although we can’t technically ask “WWJD?” about women’s fashions, we can indeed ask ourselves what He would approve of if He were in our company. It is His body, after all. The world says, “If you’ve got it, flaunt it.” The Bible says, “All you’ve got is His.” To see a professing believer openly make clothing choices on the basis of how a particular style accentuates the body is a cause for concern. It is easy to spout a trite “It’s not about me, it’s all about Him”…but this ought to reflect itself in all of our choices, because for the believer all of life is sacred. We should then ask, what are His purposes? Am I doing anything to get in the way of them? Perhaps you’ve lost weight. For His purposes? Then rejoice in regained health and wellness, but resist the temptation to select outfits with a figure-focus. If we clothe ourselves in humility, it means we don’t want to call attention to ourselves, but to our Savior.
- Esteem others: To esteem means to regard with respect. This idea of respect is something we must teach. To view everything with a servant’s heart (in the same passage in Philippians, the Savior is defined as a servant…reading the whole context is a good thing). So, when we look at how we conduct ourselves, we think of how we might serve them. Then these gestures such as being careful how to bend over, and keeping clothing in place begin to make more sense. I want to guard and protect those whom I respect. I’m not talking about Victorian rules of etiquette (they were covering the legs on furniture, for Pete’s sake!) which show “how it’s done” and define how much class we may have. No, that would be “all about me.” My choices should convey that others are important…even more important than my personal preferences. I recently saw a show on the History Channel which was hosted by “Larry the Cable Guy” (whom I’d never seen before this). He was giving a televised tour of the Pentagon. His outfit of choice, while consistent with his character and usual public appearance I suppose, was a scoop-necked tank top with gaping arm holes, a baseball cap, and a pair of shorts. To my way of thinking, it was disrespectful, regardless of his notoriety. I suspect he had other, more appropriate choices available in his closet. But he is not known for his modesty of spirit or lifestyle.
- Better than self: We are all hard wired to be egocentric. Me first. My rights. When we become Christians, we learn of agape (selfless) love. We accept it eagerly, but we dispense it poorly. Loving others, esteeming them, is three-tiered: We love others as much as we love self (Mk 12:31); then esteem others to be better than ourselves (Phil 2:3); and finally love as God loves (Jn 13:34). If you think you can get past even the first tier without God’s help, you are misinformed. Think how much you love yourself. Be objective, now. Right. Do you love others that much? Not just the lovely, lovable people in your life…everyone. Tall order? You bet. We’ve all got homework to do on this score! Self denial is something we must search out in the scriptures because the world and modern psychology will teach us the opposite: to love self above all else.
All this to say, modesty is much more than a system of checks and balances. It is something which flows from the abundance of our hearts. A heart issue. When we understand the humility and servanthood of our Savior, study it, internalize it, then it will work itself out in modest choices. Just today I saw this quote:
If you want your life to be a reflection of Christ, you need to take time to reflect on Christ.
There it is. I will close with this hymn text, which is one of my favorites. If we make this our prayer, divine modesty will be sown in our hearts.
May the mind of Christ, my Savior,
Live in me from day to day,
By His love and power controlling
All I do and say.
May the Word of God dwell richly
In my heart from hour to hour,
So that all may see I triumph
Only through His power.
May the peace of God my Father
Rule my life in everything,
That I may be calm to comfort
Sick and sorrowing.
May the love of Jesus fill me
As the waters fill the sea;
Him exalting, self abasing,
This is victory.
May I run the race before me,
Strong and brave to face the foe,
Looking only unto Jesus
As I onward go.
May His beauty rest upon me,
As I seek the lost to win,
And may they forget the channel,
Seeing only Him. ~Kate B. Wilkinson, 1913